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What Does It Actually Mean To Be An Optician? One Long-Time ECP Weighs In

It’s these ‘optical rites of passage’ that set opticians apart from online retailers.

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THE PANDEMIC, AND its resulting closures, left me with more time than I wanted to think about this industry. When a lot of us were fending for our jobs, online optical sales skyrocketed thanks to homebound consumers. There was a huge demand for blue-light protective lenses and everyone wanted to look good from the neck up for Zoom meetings. The online market naturally was there to fill the need.

In all that time to think, I wondered what it actually means to be an optician? The average purchaser online doesn’t care about credentials — apologies, master opticians — but in our absence, things really turned sour. When optical stores reopened, I fixed, remade, and adjusted more pairs of glasses from online retailers than ever. Often the issue was a dodgy PD or an overzealous progressive lens height. But when those didn’t work, patients would start all over again, both with a new appreciation of what an optician does and with the knowledge that I tried to make their original pair work. It’s our experience, know-how, and keen eye that separates us from online and turns us into optical heroes.

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I have been in optics for nearly 20 years and have been subjected to pretty much anything you can think of. I’ve dealt with patients who have lunged at me, bad ODs, and my own poor decisions. If I were new to this industry today, I would want to be prepared for two things: the volatility of (potential) customers and the power of Murphy’s Law. The online market knows nothing of optical rites of passage, and where they shrug off a mistake, we’re there to delve in, fix it, and learn from it.

Some examples of that volatility — outside of swearing and throwing glasses — are those times the customer swears they ordered a different color. Or claim they ordered progressives when they really meant Transitions: “They get ‘progressively’ darker right?”

Perhaps, their prescription is incorrect because their spouse used to be able to wear them too, but now they can’t. Oh, and my favorite, they’ve worn them for nine months but now they want a refund.

Also we have Murphy’s Law: Your rush job is due in today but mysteriously vanishes, or worse a lens slips as you’re edging it. Or maybe you’ve taken a huge bite of food just as that person you’re playing phone tag with calls. You’ve stabbed yourself with a screwdriver while talking yourself up to a colleague, broken a priceless frame in front of a customer, or say “Of course I remember you!” to a regular patient whose name you never learned.

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These are all teachable moments. Through them we learn to educate our patients at the time of sale, to take notes to back ourselves up, and to let customers know store policies before purchase. If a patient is tired of a frame after nine months, we offer them a different style for a steal. If a spouse needs glasses, we find the next available exam. Like Murphy’s Law, these rites of passage teach you the three As: Don’t be Arrogant, don’t Assume, and Appropriate your time correctly. An extra two minutes will save a frame, a lunch, a red face, and a customer.

We’ll always be navigating this optical obstacle course, but it gets easier if you plan ahead. Opticians are there to triple check the Rx, or order, and to put the patient first. I want my patients to know I am a human who has learned from my mistakes. While I don’t want them to know that Mrs. Jones ended up with +6.00 contact lenses instead of –6.00, I want them to work with the optician that makes sure that never happens again. This is how we set ourselves apart from online; we pick up the pieces … even when we’ve left them there ourselves.

David Greening holds a degree in ophthalmic dispensing from Kent, England. With 19 years experience in the industry, he is a British expat living in California for the last six. Currently, he is the optical manager at Astorino Eye Center in Newport Beach, CA. He can be emailed at [email protected].

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